The Psychology of the Pumpkin Spice Craze

Why we see so many pumpkin spice products every fall.

Posted Oct 23, 2020

Pumpkin spice pie (of course), cookies, cake, ice cream, muffins, and breakfast cereal. There are pumpkin spice pop tarts, Jell-o, granola, even pumpkin spice Kit Kats (limited time only). And, the famous pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks!

What’s the attraction to the pumpkin spice food products that predictably appear every fall?

Physiological Reasons

Is there something intoxicating about pumpkin spice? Perhaps. Pumpkin spice is a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and sometimes other spices. Maybe some of the attraction is chemical. Nutmeg, for example, contains high amounts of myristicin. Related to peyote, myristicin works on the central nervous system to enhance the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. This can cause sensations of dizziness, light-headedness, and, in large amounts, hallucinations.

Cinnamon contains eugenol, a substance that has a calming or sedative effect. Clove has a chemical that relieves pain, similar to novocaine and lidocaine. Finally, ginger is often used to reduce feelings of nausea and may cause a sense of relaxation. Any of these spices, in high dosages, alone or combined, can actually cause serious health risks. Of course, the amounts in pumpkin spice flavorings are minute, but perhaps there are some, slight psychoactive reasons to be attracted to pumpkin spice food products.

Psychological Reasons

There are a number of psychological factors that are behind the attraction to pumpkin spice. Primary among those are cognitive associations of pumpkin spice with positive memories and experiences.

Up until recent times, the primary pumpkin spice food was pumpkin pie. Because pumpkins ripen in the fall, pumpkin pie became a staple at holiday dinners—Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. As a result, this seasonal treat became associated with the holidays and with the positive memories of family gatherings, celebrations, and time off from work. So, there are myriad positive emotions and a feeling of nostalgia triggered by pumpkin spice.

Social influence factors are also prominent in the pumpkin spice craze. Nobody knows this better than Starbucks and the boost that the pumpkin spice latte (and other holiday-themed beverages) has given to their bottom line. The principle of scarcity, expertly outlined in Robert Cialdini’s research and his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, comes into play. Pumpkin spice latte (and most pumpkin spice-flavored products) are only available for a limited time in the fall/winter. This sense of scarcity is quite compelling and causes customers to “act now before it’s gone” (to use a famous advertising line).

There may also be a sort of “bandwagon effect,” or what Cialdini calls “social proof” going on. The seeming popularity and proliferation of pumpkin spice products may cause some people to feel like they should “get with it” and be a part of the pumpkin spice craze.

So, if you find yourself sipping on your second pumpkin spice latte while munching on that pumpkin spice muffin as your infuser pumps out some pumpkin spice-scented mist in your holiday-decorated kitchen, there may be physical, psychological, and social reasons why.

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References

Cialdini, R. (2006). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. NY: Harper Business.